There seems to be some confusion about the new Lumia handsets and Microsoft’s plans for distributing them. That is, Microsoft is simply doing what it told me it would do: Limit availability via those carriers that do right by the platform, while also selling the phones directly to individuals in unlocked form.
This is exactly the right approach.
But some commentators, like Peter Bright at Ars Technica, as well as many enthusiasts with less lofty platforms, are “frustrated” by what they see as the “limited availability and carrier compatibility” of Microsoft’s new Lumias. They’re missing the point.
That said, this one is sort of my fault. I’ve been talking about this topic on Windows Weekly regularly since the summer, but in looking through the articles I wrote about this year’s Windows phone collapse—Analysis: Microsoft is Scaling Back on Windows Phone Dramatically, What Satya (Really) Said About Windows Phone, Ask Paul: Should I Stick with Windows Phone?, and so on—I actually never explicitly spelled out how Microsoft plans to handle wireless carriers going forward.
And this is important. In the months and years leading up to Microsoft’s Windows phone capitulation, the biggest controversy surrounding this platform—well, aside from the utter lack of quality apps, I guess—was that wireless carriers were slow to deliver software updates, if they ever released them at all. As we move forward to the Windows 10 generation, the need to ship updates is all the more important because Windows 10 relies on regular updates. It’s never finished. And if carriers can block updates, they will completely subvert the platform, even more than they’ve already done.
So let me tell you what Microsoft communicated to me about this topic back in July.
At that time, you’ll recall, Microsoft announced a massive $7.6 billion write-down related to its phone business, and said it would dramatically scale back its mobile operations. It promised to narrow its Windows phone focus to three customer segments: business customers, value phone buyers, and enthusiasts.
In the wake of my article Analysis: Microsoft is Scaling Back on Windows Phone Dramatically, I spoke with a few very highly-placed Microsoft executives, both of whom admitted to me that my analysis was correct, that the firm’s previous Windows phone strategy had failed and that it was changing tactics specifically for that reason.
But I was also told that part of this strategy would involve rethinking its carrier relationships. Those carriers that were friendly to Windows Phone—like AT&T in the United States, I was explicitly told—would continue to be offered the chance to sell Windows phones going forward. Those that were not—Verizon, again, explicitly—would not.
(I didn’t discuss T-Mobile or Sprint with Microsoft, but their fates are pretty clear: T-Mobile is on the friendly side, if not as friendly as AT&T, and Sprint is effectively dead.)
Additionally, I was told that Microsoft would sell all of its new phones directly to customers from its own retail and online stores. These phones would be carrier unlocked and would feature “universal” radios, meaning that they would work with (virtually) any carrier worldwide. The point behind this design decision is obvious enough, but it allows Microsoft to make one version of a phone, rather than multiple versions (like Lumia Icon and Lumia 930) that target different markets and/or carriers.
As Microsoft’s distribution plans for the Lumia 950 and 950 XL have become clearer this week, some people—like Peter Bright, not to single him out—have reacted negatively. But this is because they haven’t come to terms with what I wrote in July: Microsoft has conceded the smart phone market. There isn’t some secret super-push to get Windows phones into the hands of carriers, folks. Microsoft is simply doing what it has to do. It is selling phones via friendly carriers and via its own store. And that’s it.
This isn’t bad news. It’s the best we can do given the failure of Windows phone in the marketplace. And rather than fret over a carrier-locked phone “only” selling via AT&T, what we should be doing is celebrating that we can buy any of these new phones, directly from Microsoft, in unlocked form, and for hundreds of dollars less than equivalent Samsung or iPhone flagships. This is good news, not bad news.
These new Lumias were never going to be broadly distributed via any carriers anywhere in the world. Microsoft telegraphed that in July. It’s time to move on.